Taos Municipal Schools

Three state education administrators came together online on Tuesday (Feb. 23) to discuss statewide priorities and issues, and answer questions from the public about the early education, K–12 and higher education systems.

The New Mexico Education Day Virtual Panel included Elizabeth Groginsky, secretary of the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, Ryan Stewart, secretary of the Public Education Department and Stephanie Rodriguez, acting secretary of the Higher Education Department.

“There are four strategic pillars that form the basis of the work that we try to do,” Stewart said to the nearly 200 online attendees at the New Mexico Virtual Roundhouse event.

“Making sure that we’ve got great, high-quality educators and staff in every classroom in the state with a strong educator ecosystem; making sure that all of our students have equitable access to opportunity; removing the out-of-school barriers to learning; and creating strong pathways for our students so that they can be prepared with a relevant experience that prepares them for the college or career of their choice,” he said.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the PED has faced dire budget projections and lower school enrollments across the sate. To secure the funding needed for district and charter schools, the agency worked with the state Legislature and introduced Senate Bill 17, the Family Income Index Act, in the current 60-day session, which began on January 19.

“It takes a targeted and strategic approach to attacking the issues of concentrated poverty in schools,” said Stewart. “This index would allow the legislature to appropriate funding to make sure it goes to the schools in the state that serve the students with the lowest incomes and highest needs, in proportion to the concentration of low income individuals that they serve.”

SB 17 passed in the New Mexico State Senate on Saturday (March 13) by a margin of 35–6.

Stewart also outlined PED plans to invest in Native American Communities and honor the obligations of the Yazzie/Martinez court ruling to help high-need students.

“We also feel that, after decades in which the issue of impact aid has been debated and discussed and litigated, that now we have the current momentum to finally end the taking of the impact aid credit, which will help get additional funds, not only to our Native American districts, but also to other districts who are impacted by federal lands from around the state,” said Stewart.

“I want to talk to you about what we have been doing to support our educators over the past few years,” said acting secretary Rodriguez. “The Teacher Preparation Affordability Scholarship benefited over 600 students in fiscal year 2020. Additionally, there have been over 500 awards to date for the Teacher Loan Repayment Program.

Rodriguez said support for these programs was key to providing financial aid to future teachers, and said her agency also supported proposed amendments to the Grow Your Own Teachers Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in 2019.

“This program started at 43 scholarships, and it is now estimated over 150 scholarships are expected for this semester alone,” said Rodriguez. “Great teachers help create great students, and we get there by investing in these teacher preparation support systems.”

Rodriguez also touted the Opportunity Scholarship, which fills the gap leftover from the lottery scholarship and other state aid programs, while still allowing students to use other federal aid to cover tuition, books, housing and childcare expenses.

“The Opportunity Scholarship renews the promise of a tuition-free education at one of our public colleges across the state,” she said. “The program impacted nearly 5,000 students last semester. And we have made the vital decision to expand this to bachelor’s degree programs, on top of certificate and associate’s degrees, pending the passage of Senate Bill 135.”

The HED estimates that the Opportunity Scholarship can impact up to 50,000 students across state colleges and universities.

“Additionally, New Mexicans could experience a return on investment from the scholarship program of about $175 million through income tax contributions, GRT and public assistance savings,” said Rodriguez.

“Remember, we were the first state in the nation to offer a tuition-free education through the lottery scholarship, which closed the college attainment gap for well over 100,000 New Mexicans in its history,” she concluded.

After several attempts to upload her presentation slides, Secretary Groginsky outlined the mission of the ECECD, which launched in July of 2020.

“Here is our vision — that all New Mexico families and young children are thriving, and our mission to achieve that vision is to optimize the health development, education and well being of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers through a family driven, equitable, community based system of high quality prenatal and early childhood programs and services,” said Groginsky.

The department identified its priorities last summer in discussions with lawmakers from both parties.

“First, we must grow more investments to address the needs of young children and families. And we must advance a diverse well-compensated and credentialed workforce. Third, we want to increase the quality of all of our programs, and make sure that all families and young children have access,” said Groginsky.

“Fourth, we want to achieve equity. We know that for too long, too many communities and individuals within our state have not had access to the decision-making, to the resources and the participation in the programs that they want for their community. Finally, we want to enhance authentic collaboration — with families, with educators, with community leaders, to really make sure we all understand the impactful and important time the prenatal–to-five period of life is.”

In the 2020 legislative session, Gov. Lujan Grisham signed the Early Childhood Trust Fund into law. The trust fund of $300 million will, starting in July, distribute $20 million to the ECECD, and going forward, will distribute $30 million or five percent of the capital fund each year.

“We are also in strong support of House Joint Resolution 1, which will help tap the permanent land grant for one percent to go to early childhood education and services. These two initiatives will be very important in achieving our first strategic priority of growing investments,” said Groginsky.

With insights gathered from a recently completed statewide strategic plan, the ECECD identified new ways to meet the needs of families through an aligned professional development system, and has teamed up with the HED to prepare early childhood educators and create curricula and programs.

“We know that too many of our early childhood professionals are some of the lowest paid individuals in our state. The average wage for someone working in childcare right now is about $27,000. Many of them are making much less,” said Groginsky. “So we know that we have to support and adequately compensate this workforce to make sure that their physical and social-emotional well-being is strong, so that they can in turn support families and children.”

Online attendees were invited to submit questions to the administrators.

Q: Will participants in the Opportunity Scholarship also be able to access the ECECD scholarship?

A: The Opportunity Scholarship isn’t exclusive to one type of student or one type of financial aid component. What it does do, though, is it stacks financial aid.

The ECECD component is considered state financial aid. It will stack on top of lottery scholarship or state financial aid programs. And the Opportunity Scholarship will be placed on top, to build that tuition fee gap for the remaining balances. And then we can leverage that even further by using federal funds, over tuition and fees, to the cost of attendance. So we’re talking transportation, books, materials, childcare etc.

Q: How can we align professional development in early childhood and still work with a diverse population and trainers and early childhood teacher educators across the state? Are we looking to use companies outside of our state, or keep using our in-state trainers?

A: We were planning to continue to build on the infrastructure we have in the state —being able to leverage those consultants and coaches across the prenatal-to-five system, to really have made sure that all communities have an opportunity to have access to consultants. We’re not planning to bring in people from out-of-state, but to really grow our own, as we say, and make sure that we continue to expand those coaches and consultants who are working with our educators.

Q: You’re planning to increase the early childhood workforce by 10 percent annually with degreed workers. What is the plan to increase their wages?

A: We have a wage supplement program. This year in our budget, we’ve asked for $4.5 million to support pre-K, and parity for those educators in community-based settings who have a bachelor’s degree or higher. But overall, we have made significant investments in wage supplement, and we’ll continue to look at ways to increase compensation for the early childhood workforce who do seek credentials and degrees, making sure that that pay matches that experience and education.

Q: You discussed ensuring that all early childhood programs are meeting a certain level of quality. What criteria is being used to determine quality, and how will that criteria be assessed?

A: We all know the quality of early childhood experiences is really that relationship they have with the professionals, the educators who work with them. So we’re focused on making sure that educators are well supported, compensated, educated, so that they can in turn provide that responsive, nurturing, caregiving and education to the children that they serve.

I think it’s a great question and one that we will be exploring together with the early childhood community as we work to invest in the workforce to make sure that they can show up every day, be ready and prepared.

I just want to give a big shout out to all the early care and education professionals who’ve been helping families and children navigate through COVID-19, in many situations and challenges none of us have ever encountered, but they have children and families at the center of their focus every day.

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